Swarthmore's independent campus newspaper since 1881

Tag archive

professors

In support of academic freedom

in Opinions/Staff Editorials by
Atshan

One of our community members, Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies Sa’ed Atshan, has recently come to local and national attention. In brief, Atshan had months ago been invited to give a talk at Friends’ Central School — an elite Quaker college-preparatory schools in Greater Philadelphia — at the request of teachers and students who expressed interest in learning about peaceful activism in the Middle East. However, Atshan never received the chance to share his wisdom. Just two days before the scheduled event date of Feb. 10, he was informed that his invitation had been rescinded. We at the Phoenix stand with our professor and support Atshan in sharing his work and extensive knowledge on the Middle East. We condemn the decision of the Friend’s Central School in thwarting a possibility for the valuable discourse sought by their students and faculty members, and in joining a sweepingly large conglomerate of American institutions that silences peace-activist speech.

Some parents complained to the FSC administration about Atshan, who is a queer Palestinian Quaker, simplistically referring to him as “anti-Israel.” Those of us who have taken courses with Professor Atshan know that he explicitly problematizes and rejects such labels. He reminds us that it is important to affirm the fundamental dignity of Palestinians and Israelis. Atshan’s scholarship and activism emphasize the need for equality, coexistence, and peace for all the inhabitants of Israel/Palestine.

A recent Philadelphia Inquirer article also referenced the Pro-Israeli websites who refer to Atshan as a “leader in the Boycott, Divest, Sanction” (BDS) movement against the state of Israel. While he does support nonviolent activism to end the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories, Atshan is not actually a leader in the peaceful BDS movement. Professor Atshan did not even plan to talk about BDS at CFS. He had prepared a hopeful and autobiographical reflection aimed at a teenage audience on the power of pacifism, justice, and love.  Guided by a desire to pacify emotions and ensure sustained donations, the Head of the School, Craig A. Sellers, ultimately called off the talk.

We at the Phoenix, in recognition of the democratic value of free speech, ethical conduct, and proactive dialogue, support Atshan at a time when he is on the receiving end of misinformation and silencing. However, we also want to shine light on the paradox of repression that is occurring in the form of mass support. We stand firmly in solidarity with the 65 students of Friends’ Central School who walked out of a school-wide meeting last Wednesday to protest the talk cancellation. Other students bravely stood and read a statement, and 40 students organized a facilitated conversation to discuss their concerns as a community. FCS has also received countless emails and phone calls from FCS alumni, groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace, Quakers from around the world, and many others, to express their opposition to the cancellation of Atshan’s talk.

Two school teachers involved in initially inviting Atshan to campus — English Teacher Ariel Eure and History Teacher Layla Helwa  — were suspended and put on administrative leave when they supported the students in protest. We find it important to note that both teachers are queer women of color, and have so easily been dismissed and silenced for their peaceful actions. They are banned from school premises, their email accounts have been disabled, and the locks on their doors have been changed. A member of our editorial board witnessed firsthand that students have covered their classroom doors from top to bottom with fluorescent sticky notes with words of encouragement, love, and support.

With the same integrity that we encourage open dialogue, we also acknowledge and respect the decision of both Atshan and these teachers for refusing comment at this moment. Mainstream  media in the United States indeed has the capacity to twist the intentions of words, and for those who embody historically marginalized identities,  fear of speaking on issues that are politically contentious or whose conversations are steered by powerful lobbying and political groups is grounded in the very real possibility of unlawful retribution and violence.

As members of a Quaker institution, we are particularly disappointed in Friends’ Central School for choosing potential monetary support over the Quaker value of tolerance and collaborative decision-making. In a recent email to the CFS community, Sellers acknowledged that, “There was a fundamental breakdown in process. We simply did not approach this very sensitive topic with adequate community dialogue.”

When mathematical reasoning gets murky

in Op-Eds/Opinions by
swatmath

In a recent piece for the Phoenix, “Why Mathematical Reasoning Should Be a Part of Civic Education,” Zhicheng Fan advocates expanded mathematical education as an antidote to the post-factual political climate into which the U.S. has unfortunately ventured.  The argument, in essence, rests on two assertions: (1) mathematics reinforces the notion of universal truths, leaving “alternative facts” deservedly exposed as the sham that they are, and (2) the precision and logical rigor incumbent on a mathematician trains one to think and act more rationally.  Thus, it appears that by encouraging a broader spectrum of society to study mathematics, we would expect to see a cultural shift toward a greater adherence to logic, truth, and attention to detail.

I absolutely agree that mathematical education should be embraced and enlarged. I particularly support Fan’s suggestions of bringing proofs, both the banal and the beautiful, into the curriculum at an earlier stage and incorporating more math history to contextualize and humanize the material and inspire students. However, I wish to add an additional layer of consideration.  I believe that transferring mathematical reasoning to the “real world” is not so simple as Fan’s quixotic zeal suggests. While the qualities Fan ascribes to mathematical reasoning are indeed staples of the discipline, there is yet another that I have found to be essential though often overlooked: using intuition to guide exploration.  I draw the same conclusion as Fan, that math education should be broadened, and in the same ways he suggests.  However, my premise is a slight variant: I claim that mathematics not only teaches us to write clearly, accurately, and honestly, but also to think creatively, metaphorically, and imprecisely—but in a productive way!

Allow me first to clarify some points for context: (1) Fan invited me to write this response piece, and my goal in doing so is to encourage a continued civil, fruitful discussion where we build on each other’s ideas; (2) Fan is currently my student in Modern Algebra, but I have already learned as much from him, both in that class and in this editorial discussion, as he perhaps has from me as his professor; (3) the other course I am currently teaching is Introduction to Mathematical Thinking, the class Fan recommends toward the end of his article, and I wholeheartedly reaffirm Fan’s suggestion to take it—particularly those of you who might have had a scarring mathematical experience in the past.

Let me begin with the challenges of applying mathematical reasoning to non-mathematical situations.  An example from Fan’s article conveniently illustrates the point.  The mathematical existence of the Weierstrass Function, a graph fluctuating in such an inconceivably dramatic manner that it is impossible to draw, is said to demonstrate that it is “conceptually possible for a car to move without speed at any moment.”  I highly doubt such an occurrence is possible, or that it even makes sense.  Thus, the confidence established by mathematical certainty leads one precipitously off a cliff of plausibility when adapted to a physical setting.  In other words, transferring mathematical fact to the real world leads to what Fan refers to as a “conceptual possibility,” which arguably is none other than our foe, the “alternative fact.”  If such a simple case as interpreting the derivative of a function as the speed of a car is problematic, imagine applying mathematical reasoning and certainty more broadly to the world of beguiling complexity and nuance in which we live. Some believe the 2008 financial crisis was exacerbated by false-confidence resulting from this discrepancy between the precision of mathematical models and the chaotic uncertainty of the real world.  For a fascinating discussion of the over-zealous reliance on mathematical models that our society has in recent years been consumed by, see the recent book “Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy” by Cathy O’Neil.

But hope is not lost. Mathematics is not a useless Platonic realm confined to our imaginations, nor simply a progenitor of pernicious mathematical models.  Mathematics provides the backbone for a great deal of science and technology and has had a tremendous, very real, and often extremely positive impact felt across the planet.  Of course, this includes a positive impact in the classroom as well.

Classroom mathematics can be deceptive. The clean, accurate, polished form with which mathematical facts, or theorems, are presented in textbooks belies their oftentimes controversial histories and messy prior incarnations.  Mathematics continually develops itself by envisioning greater levels of generality and more rigorous foundations and then summoning past knowledge, placing it within modern language and perspective.  In doing so, mathematics acts as a self-cleaning oven, deftly erasing its history of missteps and vagaries while offering a feeling of timelessness and universality.  When the name of a 17th century prodigy comes up in class, for instance, we seldom describe the theorem the way it was stated and viewed at the time of its publication. Instead, with statements that have evolved over centuries, we see only the most recent incarnation.  Thus mathematical ideas percolate through continual modernization, even if the words themselves grow stale.

The mathematical world seamlessly blends irrefutable reality with resplendent fantasy.  When I think about math, I think in terms of metaphor and cartoon simplifications of complex notions.  Details, logic, and precision only enter the thought process at a later stage at which I am ready to probe further the depths of a mathematical thought or to communicate it to others.  Thus, while I agree that math helps train the brain in rigor and truthful properties, what strikes me most about my years of doing mathematics is somewhat the opposite. Rather, math has trained me to embrace the uncertain, to heedlessly leap into vast hinterlands of vague thought while grasping for familiarity, to recognize that creativity arises from uncertainty, and to become cognizant of the difference between an idea and a written or spoken manifestation of it.

Since Fan ended his article with a beautiful theorem demonstrating the enduring elegance of mathematical truths, allow me to end mine with an equally accessible example of a conjecture. That is, a simple statement whose rigorous verification continues to defy the entire mathematical community.

The Collatz Conjecture: Given any positive integer n, divide by two if it is even or multiply by three and add one of it is odd; repeat this procedure and you will eventually end up with the number one.

Try it!  Here is an example for n = 10:

10 —> 5 —> 16 —> 8 —> 4 —> 2 —> 1

Computers have checked unimaginably many values of n yet no general pattern has emerged allowing us to firmly establish this result for the infinitude of possible values.  Mathematics is as much about the unknown as it is about the known, and that’s why I love it.

College aims to staff 5-4 change

in News by
phoenix_logo_red_2x

As part of its 2012 strategic planning initiative, the college announced a transition from professors teaching a three-two course load, three courses one semester and two the other to a two-two course load, having professors teach a total of four courses over the academic year. The college hopes the change will allow professors more time to work individually with students, and work more on their scholarship.  

Nathalie Anderson, professor of English literature, says teaching three courses in a semester leaves her little time for other endeavors.  

“It doesn’t matter what the courses are,” she said. “It’s exhausting.”

Anderon usually teaches three courses in the fall, but due to the new changes, she has had several fall semesters of only teaching two courses.

“It was like a ton of weight had been lifted off my shoulders,” said Anderson “Suddenly, it was so much easier to be able to make appointments to talk with students. It was so much easier to be able to read a student essay and see how it could be made more effective, just because there weren’t so many of them to fit into the time that was available. It is just remarkable what a difference it makes.”

The decreased course load also comes with an expectation that Professors will work more with individual students.

“Now as we move toward the four course load, there’s an assumption that it will be four courses ‘plus’: all of us do curricular and administrative things in addition to our class room teaching, and we’ve been doing that all along. In my case I mentor students in Directed Creative Writing Projects in poetry. Three of those projects in a semester is the equivalent of an extra uncredited class, and the new system will acknowledge that effort,” said Anderson.

Many larger universities already work with this teaching load because it allows professors to focus more on their academic careers outside of teaching. Swarthmore however sees the transition primarily as a way to increase professors connections with students and, secondarily, as a time-opener for faculty. The change will allow professors to do more independent research with students, something that the social science division has been trying to change.

“There’s a general feeling among the faculty that the college as a whole would like to move in some way towards a model, that’s very prevalent in the natural sciences,” said  Stephen O’Connell, professor of economics.

In the natural sciences there’s some expectation that many students will have a research opportunity either with faculty or off campus before they graduate.

“In the natural sciences, that is really built in, not as a guarantee, but as part of how faculty think about their curriculum and about their obligations in the summer. In the social sciences and humanities, there’s a realization that having some kind of a research opportunity with faculty is a great thing, when it can work.The resources for that have been expanding gradually, but I think there’s interest in thinking through how we can broaden those opportunities,” said O’Connell.

In order to make this goal a reality, the college is in the process of hiring 25 to 30 new professors to allow departments to decrease current professors course loads while still offering the same classes. Most of these positions will be tenure tracks, but the college is not sure if all positions will be tenure. So far the college has allocated 15 tenure positions and added 17 faculty positions total. They will continue to add tenure and faculty positions over the next several years.  According to provost Tom Stephenson, the first professors as part of this initiative were hired 2014-2015 academic year, and the last will arrive in 2020-2021.

The Council on Educational Policy  is in charge of recommending which departments get tenure tracks each year. The CEP receives requests for tenure lines each fall and makes recommendations about which departments should be allowed to either fill vacated tenure lines or hire for a new tenure position to the faculty in the spring. The final decision on tenure tracks is made by President Valerie Smith.

Once President Smith approves the tenure lines, which indicates available positions within a department, departments may then begin searching for employees to fill that spot. A tenure line is not approving an individual person’s tenure but instead approving a tenure position for the department

Stephenson says the CEP makes recommendations for tenure lines based on several criteria including: having a balanced curricula, sustainability of curriculum, the ability to offer the classes that appeal to students, stability of a program and the existing diversity of the faculty.

However, the four-course program is difficult to follow for some departments. Although the college plans to hire the necessary professors, the transition period has proved difficult and complicated for many departments.

One such department is the computer science department. Computer science offers one of the smallest numbers of tenure track positions, despite the growing class enrollment size. In order to accommodate the increase, the department has cut many upper-level seminars, meaning many computer science majors will not have a seminar experience in their major.

“Our department is already stressed under a five course load. We’ve had to cut first year seminars. We’ve cut all seminar courses from our offerings… I think our smallest [upper-level seminar] this semester has 25, and most have around 40 students,” said Tia Newhall, computer science chair. “So computer science students at Swarthmore don’t ever have a small class experience in their computer science courses, and I think that fundamentally changes the ways in which we can teach the course and the type of learning experience we can provide to students.”

Newhall worries that reducing the amount of classes available to students without expanding faculty numbers will mean that students will be at a disadvantage.

“Under a four course load, I think that’s going to get worse. There’s two options: either that gets worse, or fewer and fewer Swarthmore students get to take a CS course.”  

The department was awarded another tenure track job last year, but it has been unable to fill the position due to a national deficit of computer science Ph.Ds who are interested in teaching.

The engineering department has also struggled with the transition. Additionally they have it has to work with complications of an external accreditation process.

“We have an accredited program, so we have an external accreditation body that visits us. … They make sure that we have a program that is top quality and that can be accredited,” said Carr Everbach, chair of the engineering department.

In order to keep their standing in the professional engineering community the department has to keep up with certain community norms.

“We cannot simply chop courses out and still maintain an accredited program,” said Everbach. “So every time we’ve been asked by the college, ‘how are you going to go to four courses’, we’ve said we need additional faculty. We need to offer the program we have and just have people teach less often but still cover the courses with other faculty, but we have not been granted any additional faculty.”

According to Everbach, in order to have all professors teaching four courses, the engineering department would require two new full-time professors which have not been approved. In order to start the transition, the engineering department has had to cut courses like Engineering five, which was a .5 credit course for incoming freshman.  Some professors have also had to cut interdisciplinary courses they were teaching.  

More generally, the change has the capacity to effect interdisciplinary programs at the college. As professors begin to teach fewer classes during the academic year, they also have less time to teach courses outside of their department in interdisciplinary programs. There are currently no tenure tracks in non-departments. Until two years ago all tenure positions had to be in departments. Now the college is now allowing tenure positions in inter-disciplinary programs, The college has received requests from the environmental studies, black studies, and peace and conflict studies programs but has not yet approved one tenure track for interdisciplinary programs. Stephenson explained the lack of tenure positions.

“They just haven’t quite made it to the top of the priority list.”

He did say that President Smith has made it a priority of the college to improve the interdisciplinary programs, and that eventually these programs will be given tenure positions, it is just a question of when.

 

Barry Schwartz reflects on a long, happy career

in Campus Journal by
3265571563_3aca8f72a5_o

“Barry Schwartz has truly lived a good life.”

This remark from the symposium honoring the esteemed psychology professor of 45 years best sums up the sentiments expressed at the event, held in late March. Schwartz’s colleagues spoke in Lang Concert Hall, exalting the depth and impact of his research, the reach and meaning of his teaching career, and, most notably, his admirable way of being.  I sat down with Professor Schwartz to discuss the event, his prolific career as a professor and psychologist, and his hopes for the college.

“It was stunning,” Schwartz described his experience attending the symposium. “It was just unbelievably gratifying.”

A wide variety of students attended the event to celebrate Schwartz’s long career, as well as to hear talks from well-established psychologists around the country, including a personal video from Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman.

Hearing the impact of his classes and collaborations came as a surprise to the professor, who describes feeling grateful for the ways Swarthmore’s liberal arts programs have shaped his own career and knowledge.

“People find nice things to say and everyone exaggerates a little bit,” he insisted.

Professor Schwartz remains remarkably humble, even when we discuss his highly prolific career. He has written 6 books and published over 20 works of research and opinion, in addition to teaching psychology courses.

“I tell everyone: my education began at Swarthmore,” he said. He came to Swarthmore as a psychology professor in 1971 because it was geographically convenient and says he stayed because he fell in love with it.

Schwartz believes that working at Swarthmore has afforded him opportunities unavailable at a big research university. Instead of only developing relationships within the psychology department, working at Swarthmore has allowed him to meet sociologists, historians, and biologists. He is a better psychologist for it, he tells me. He also appreciates the students themselves and the relationships forged with them over the years.

“They don’t realize it, but I love when they disagree with me,” he insisted.

Schwartz remarked on the changes he has seen at Swarthmore over his 45 years.

“It’s become more professionally-oriented,” Schwartz explained.

He thinks that the faculty and students alike are thinking more so about specialization and research, maybe at the cost of breadth and institutional welfare.

“They want to get into the lab before they know why,” he said.

We talk about whether Swarthmore could or should be involved in getting students to reflect on themselves and their time in college, so that they avoid getting, as Schwartz said, lost in the details.

“It might be worth a try,” he said, about specifically instituting a class or series about self-reflection.

As far as their success at Swarthmore, he likens classes and programs in personal reflection and personal development to an ethics class in business school. They can be meaningful and thought-provoking if done correctly but, he cautions, when they become boxes to check off, they’re not just unproductive but counterproductive.

“Why are you doing this? Why does it matter?” he encourages students to think about in their own lives.

His own popular “Happiness” course is an example of such topical classes done correctly. Each time it’s offered, it fills up more than 5 times over. Last time, over 70 students were lotteried for just 12 spots.

“I told them this isn’t a self-help class! You’re not going to learn how to be happy,” he said.

Despite being a psychology class concerned with research and theories of happiness, students treated the class as far more than an academic exercise. Schwartz described this high level of engagement and excitement with pride.

“It became more than an academic exercise to them. It just became incredibly fun to teach.”

Still, Schwartz’s proudest moments at Swarthmore didn’t involve classes or research.

He told me about his role in supporting student activism in pushing for a living wage and the ways his position in the school gave the cause increased legitimacy, which ultimately paid off.

He similarly cited a proposal he made about community-based learning and social action as central to the conception of the Lang Center. He’s proud to see the Center become important to students and the college institutionally.

Aside from that, he fondly looks back on his style of relationship and collaboration.

Referring to a class he taught with Professor Ken Sharpe, Schwartz said, “We taught a fantastic class based on friendship and collaboration. It was just pointed out to me how unique it was to have personal and professional relationships where you can’t see where the friendship ends and the collaboration begins.”

Ultimately, he described Swarthmore as a model for other schools, making our decisions within the college of added importance.

“There need to be some pristine institutions,” he explained.

In terms of hopes going forward, he added that we might find a way to encourage political diversity and student resilience, in particular.

“Students seem afraid to hurt each other’s feelings, which is a good thing but also not a good thing,” he asserted. “Liberals are getting sloppy. The conservatives here are in much better shape because they’ve been pushed on so much.”

Schwartz looks back on his time at Swarthmore, his relationships, and collaborations with deep satisfaction.

Ultimately, he is hopeful for the future of Swarthmore and proud of what is sure to be a profound legacy here.

“No regrets,” he concluded. “Not one.”

Despite student pushback, Gregory King departs

in Around Campus/News by
About_dennis-j-photography-33

Despite a letter of protest from students and his application for a tenure-track position at the college, Visiting Assistant Professor of Dance and Postdoctoral Fellow Gregory King will be leaving Swarthmore at the end of the 2015-16 academic year.

King, a former Broadway dancer, was hired to begin teaching courses in the 2014-15 academic year, and his position was funded by a fellowship grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The fellowship is intended for scholars who have been awarded a Ph.D. or M.F.A. no later than the beginning of the fellowship year and no earlier than five years before the beginning of the fellowship year. Fellows receive compensation commensurate with the salary of a full-time, one-year faculty member with comparable qualifications, and “…modest funds” are available to finance proposed research, mentoring, and scholarship.

At Swarthmore, King has taught all three levels of modern dance and Introduction to Laban Movement Analysis. His unique teaching style within the Department of Music and Dance has gained him a small but loyal following of students. Jong Seok Lee ’17 is one of these students. He began taking modern dance in the Spring of 2015 and has taken a dance course with Gregory every semester since.

“….all the dance majors just say that [King] is overqualified for Swarthmore because he just has so much experience teaching. He used to teach at Boston Ballet, so we’re very fortunate to have him. I don’t know if I’m going to take a modern class after he leaves,” Lee said.

While King’s fellowship only lasted for two academic years, he was interested in extending his time at Swarthmore. On the Faculty Diversity & Excellence page of the Swarthmore website, a description of the fellowship states, “… many CFD candidates are qualified for tenure track searches,” and King applied for a tenure track position that opened up during his time at the college: one to replace Professor Sharon Friedler, who has been Director of the Dance Program since 1985.

Associate Professor Olivia Sabee was hired to fill Friedler’s position in the department, not King. According to Associate Professor of Music Barbara Milewski, who was chair of the department during the Spring 2015 search process, King was ultimately not selected for the position because his experiences were not closely aligned enough with the curricular needs of the department.

“ … [we] felt strongly that Olivia Sabee, who we hired, would provide the department with expertise that would maintain a robust, comprehensive dance curriculum. We were searching for an exceptional dance scholar [and] practitioner and we felt Professor Sabee’s training and experience matched our criteria as closely as possible,” Milewski said.

King said that members of the search committee explicitly told him that he was not being considered for the position because he held an M.F.A. instead of a Ph.D.

        “I applied. They told me I was not being considered for the position because they wanted someone with a Ph.D. … When I applied [for the tenure-track position], they sent me an email saying they wanted to meet with me, and I went to the office and [the search committee] said ‘Out of professional courtesy, you are not being considered for these reasons,’” King said.

King felt that his qualifications did not match up with the qualifications the department was looking for, and this explained why he was not selected for the tenure-track position.

“I understand, especially at an institution like this, [that] most of the hires are Ph.D.s because, in terms of core curriculum, it’s not practice-based. With my M.F.A., it may be limiting, but at the same time, I believe that within my M.F.A. there are lots of theory classes that could be taught … but I do believe, culturally, Swarthmore is definitely Ph.D. driven, and I get that,” King said. While he appreciates the academic nature of the department and of Swarthmore academics in general, and feels that the environment has made him a better teacher, King expressed that the department could be doing much more for its students.

“…[the department] has to shift how people view [their] craft. I wanted that very much to happen… because it’s not just about shuckin’ and jiving and twerking. I struggled really hard to make sure people grabbed something and held on to something so that when I leave, they can go, ‘Okay, he gave me something,’ or, ‘He shared something with me,” King said.

Even though it is almost certain that King will not be teaching at Swarthmore during the 2016-17 academic year, several of his students have attempted to convince the college that he should stay.

Amelia Estrada ’17, an honors dance major, spearheaded an effort to keep Gregory oncampus during the Fall 2015 semester, after the selection process for Friedler’s replacement had occurred. Estrada said she spoke with Daniel Underhill Professor of Music and Chair Thomas Whitman ’82 about King’s ability to remain at the college and also wrote him a letter explaining her rationale. In the letter, Estrada said that King adds a higher level of practice to the department, an element that she feels had been severely lacking in the dance department prior to his arrival. She also cited King’s presence as the primary reason she decided to pursue a major in Dance.

“More than anything, [King] awakened my passion for studying dance both in the studio and the classroom. Losing Gregory would be a grave detriment to the department and to Swarthmore College,” she wrote.

Estrada said that Whitman told her the size of the Department of Music and Dance limited the amount of funds that could be allocated for new hires. According to Whitman, reported Estrada, if funds were available for a new faculty member in any area of the college, they would go to a new Computer Science hire before a new Dance hire, because of student-faculty ratio concerns. Estrada also expressed concern that the department’s desire for a faculty member with a particular degree influenced the hiring decision.

“In the world of dance … an M.F.A. is considered a terminal degree just as much as a Ph.D. is, but there’s no Ph.D. in choreography, at least in this country … so people with M.F.A.s at schools with larger dance departments do get full-time tenured faculty positions because at schools with larger arts programs, it’s a little more recognized. But unfortunately, there’s a lot of pressure at [small schools] to hire Ph.D.s,” she said.

Whitman said that he was very grateful for Estrada’s letter, but was powerless to change the decision not to keep King at Swarthmore.

“I can’t wave my hands and create a new budget line for a dance faculty member. I don’t have that authority. Nobody has that authority,” he said. Whitman could not offer any information about any position openings for a modern dance professor within the department of music and dance and had no knowledge of King applying for a tenure-track position since he assumed the role of chair in July of 2015.

As it stands, King is considering offers from other institutions, and his students at Swarthmore will miss his presence on campus.

“We really wish that [King] could stay, and it’s definitely disappointing,” Estrada said.

Not enough professors to go around

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

Over the past week, I have attended several department information sessions in preparation for the sophomore plan. More than any of the requirements, recommendations and advice on the proper way to explain a major choice to disapproving family members, what has stuck with me is the feeling that there are not enough professors to go around. Many departments seem to be shrinking uncontrollably, or are at least unable to keep up with growing interest.

The political science department, with one of the largest majors in the school, has recently been denied an application for a tenure-track position, and is not optimistic about its chances for this application cycle. At the information session, we were assured that the department would do its best to fit us into the classes we wanted, but given the current size of the faculty, this would not always be possible. The problem will only be exacerbated as the school shifts down to a four-course load for professors, while simultaneously expanding its student body.

The most disturbing case I have encountered is in the history department. The underlying theme of the information session seemed to be a constant need to apologize for the lack of professors available to teach classes. With the departure of Professor Pieter Judson at the end of last semester, the department was already dealing with finding qualified instructors to teach courses, and facing the elimination of a popular honors seminar. But with the unexpected departure of professor Rosie Bsheer this semester, it seems as though the department is shrinking before our very eyes. When this is combined with the necessary process of periodically removing courses and seminars from the rotation, it becomes a bit of a challenge to both fill requirements and find classes in the specialties one wishes to pursue.

When a student asked if these missing professors would be replaced, the answer only confirmed our worst fears — the department would likely not be able to fill the slots within the next couple of years, and would not be searching for a new Middle East specialist. The department has decided that it is futile to continue to chase after temporary appointments and has instead opted to pursue an added tenure track position in the future.

Given the current status of tenure-track applications, this future seems be very distant. As important as it is to ensure the hiring of a permanent professor, this does little to alleviate the concerns of current students left unable to pursue the areas of study they believed they would have access to when they decided to come to Swarthmore.

The history department is by no means ignorant of this problem. It is reasonable to insist on waiting for a tenure track position. The department is demonstrating to the administration that the constant cycle of instructors, lecturers and visiting assistant professors does not meet the needs of the student body.

But while this is pursued, those of us in the department are left with an incomplete program. There is no better evidence of the failure of this system than the departure of Bsheer. Just as members of the department had worried, she left a temporary position at Swarthmore to accept a tenure track position at Yale. How many professors need to be enticed away before the college will grant the department the ability to offer its hires the promise of job security?

Expanding the number of tenure track positions is particularly important in a subject like history, where fields of study are so sharply delineated. It is simply unrealistic to ask an expert in modern Latin American history to also head up the study of ancient Chinese civilization. While the skills are transferable, the various specialties in history require entirely different bodies of knowledge. It is unfair to expect a college the size of Swarthmore to have every region covered, but the current gaps are uncomfortably wide.

An institution so committed to providing a wellrounded and socially relevant education should not prevent its students from engaging meaningfully in the study of regions that will influence the shape of the global community for decades to come. The department has done all it can to provide this opportunity. Without additional tenure-track positions, we must resign ourselves to the fact that we will never see classes on modern Middle Eastern history in our time at Swarthmore.

Visiting professors are of course important to the functioning of a college, but a department cannot exist without the consistency of tenured faculty. This problem can be seen across many departments and across all three divisions of the college. One of the major appeals of any small college is the ability to build lasting relationships with faculty members over the course of one’s studies. It is to the detriment of the community when this opportunity is unavailable. Of course, the college has many factors it must take into account when making budget decisions, most of which I cannot pretend to understand. Still, Swarthmore is, at its core, an academic institution. Thus, one of its chief concerns should be ensuring that students get the academic experience we are led to believe we will when we decide to come to Swarthmore. This cannot happen without a sufficient number of professors who will be around long enough for us to get to know with some consistency.

As recent events have shown, the college cannot hope to attract qualified academics without giving them the proper incentives. Tenured faculty form the foundation of any department, and these positions must be increased to keep up with the legitimate interests of departments and students alike. From my own experience, this means granting the history department the tenure-track position it needs to make up for just one of the recent losses, but I am sure that this sentiment could be echoed across many departments.

In order to meet its obligations as an educational institution, Swarthmore must find a way to expand the availability of its most basic resource — its professors.

Go to Top